Occitan (English pronunciation: /ˈɒksɨtən, -tæn, -tɑːn/; Occitan: [utsiˈta]; French: [ɔksitɑ̃]), also known as lenga d’òc (Occitan: [ˈleŋɡɔ ˈðɔ(k)]; French: langue d’oc) by its native speakers, is a Romance language. It is spoken in southern France, Italy’s Occitan Valleys, Monaco, and Spain’s Val d’Aran; collectively, these regions are sometimes referred to unofficially asOccitania. Occitan is also spoken in the linguistic enclave of Guardia Piemontese (Calabria, Italy). However, there are strong polemics about the unity of the language, as some think that Occitan is a macrolanguage.
Occitan is an official language in Catalonia, where a subdialect of Gascon known as Aranese is spoken. Occitan’s closest relative is Catalan. Since September 2010, the Parliament of Catalonia has considered Aranese Occitan to be the officially preferred language for use in the Val d’Aran.
Across history, the terms Limousin (Lemosin), Languedocien (Lengadocian), Gascon, and later Provençal (Provençal, Provençau orProuvençau) have been used as synonyms for the whole of Occitan; nowadays, “Provençal” is understood mainly as the Occitan dialect spoken in Provence.
Unlike other Romance languages such as French or Spanish, there is no single written standard language called “Occitan”, and Occitan has no official status in France, home to most of Occitania. Instead, there are competing norms for writing Occitan, some of which attempt to be pan-dialectal while others are based on particular dialects (e.g. Provençal in southeast France, or Gascon in theVal d’Aran of Spain, where it is known as Aranese). These efforts are hindered by the rapidly declining usage of Occitan as a spoken language in much of southern France, as well as by the significant differences in phonology and vocabulary between different Occitan dialects. In particular, the northern and easternmost dialects have more features in common with the Gallo-Italic and Oïl languages (e.g. nasal vowels; loss of final consonants; initial cha/ja- instead of ca/ga-; uvular ‹r›; the front-rounded sound /ø/ instead of a diphthong, /w/ instead of /l/ before a consonant), while the southernmost dialects have more features in common with the Ibero-Romance languages (e.g. betacism; voiced fricatives between vowels in place voiced stops; -ch- in place of -it-), and Gascon has a number of unusual features not seen in other dialects (e.g. /h/ in place of /f/; loss of /n/ between vowels; intervocalic -r- and final -t/chin place of medieval -ll-). There are also significant lexical differences, where again the northern dialects have words cognate with French, and the southern dialects have Catalan and Spanish cognates (maison/casa ”house”, testa/cap ”head”, petit/pichon ”small”,achaptar/crompar ”to buy”, entendre/ausir ”to hear”, se taire/se calar ”to be quiet”, tombar/caire ”to fall”, p(l)us/mai ”more”,totjorn/sempre ”always”, etc.). Nonetheless, there is a significant amount of mutual intelligibility.
The long-term survival of Occitan is in grave doubt. According to the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages, four of the six major dialects of Occitan (Provençal, Auvergnat, Limousin and Languedocien) are considered severely endangered, while the remaining two (Gascon and Vivaro-Alpine) are considered definitely endangered.
History of the modern term
The name Occitan comes from lenga d’òc (“language of òc”), òc being the Occitan word for yes. While the term would have been in use orally for some time after the decline of Latin, as far as historical records show the Italian medieval poet Dante was the first to have recorded the term lingua d’oc in writing. In his De vulgari eloquentia, he wrote in Latin, “nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil” (“for some say òc, others sì, yet others oïl“), thereby highlighting three major Romance literary languages that were well known in Italy, based on each language’s word for “yes”, the òc language (Occitan), the oïl language (French), and the sì language (Italian). This was not, of course, the only defining characteristic of each group.
The word òc came from Vulgar Latin hoc (“this”), while oïl originated from Latin hoc illud (“this [is] it”). Old Catalan, and now the Catalan of Northern Catalonia (French: Catalunya Nord) also have hoc (òc). Other Romance languages derive their word for “yes” from the Latin sic, ”thus [it is], [it was done], etc.”, such as Spanish sí, Eastern Lombard sé, Italian sì, or Portuguese sim. In Modern Catalan, as in modern Spanish, sí is usually used as a response, although the language retains the word oi, akin to òc, which is sometimes used at the end of yes–no questions, and also in higher register as a positive response. French uses si in response to questions where a negative answer is expected: e.g., “Vous n’avez pas de frères?” “Si, j’en ai sept.” (“You have no brothers?” “Yes [I do], I have seven.”).
The name “Occitan” is sometimes considered a neologism; however, it was attested around 1300 as “occitanus”, a crossing of ocand aquitanus (Aquitanian).
Other names for Occitan
For many centuries, the Occitan dialects (together with Catalan) were referred to as Limousin or Provençal, the names of two regions lying within modern Occitania. After Frédéric Mistral’s Félibrige movement in the 19th century, Provençal achieved the greatest literary recognition and so became the most popular term for Occitan.
According to Joseph Anglade, a philologist and specialist of medieval literature who helped impose the then archaic term Occitan as the sole correct name, the word Lemosin was first used to designate the language at the beginning of the 13th century by Catalantroubadour Raimon Vidal de Besalú in his Razós de trobar:
As for the word Provençal, it should not be taken as strictly meaning the language of Provence, but of Occitania as a whole, for “in the eleventh, the twelfth, and sometimes also the thirteenth centuries, one would understand under the name of Provence the whole territory of the old Provincia Romana and even Aquitaine”. The term first came into fashion in Italy.
Currently, linguists use the terms “Provençal” and “Limousin” strictly to refer to specific varieties within Occitania, keeping the name “Occitan” for the language as a whole. Many non-specialists, however, continue to refer to the language as Provençal, causing some confusion.
One of the oldest written fragments of the language ever found dates back to the year 960, in an official text that was mixed with Latin:
Carolinian litanies (ca 780), both written and sung in Latin, were answered to in Old Occitan by the audience (Ora pro nos; Tu lo juva).
Other famous pieces include the Boecis, a 258-line-long poem written entirely in the Limousin dialect of Occitan between the year 1000 and 1030 and inspired by Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy; the Waldensian La nobla leyczon (dated 1100), la Cançó de Santa Fe (ca 1054–1076), the Romance of Flamenca (13th century), the Song of the Albigensian Crusade (1213–1219?), Daurel e Betó (12th or 13th century), Las, qu’i non sun sparvir, astur (11th century) and Tomida femina (9th or 10th century).
Occitan was the vehicle for the influential poetry of the medieval troubadours (trovadores) and trobairises: At that time, the language was understood and celebrated throughout most of educated Europe. It was the maternal language of the English queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and kings Richard I of England (who wrote troubadour poetry) and John, King of England. With the gradual imposition of French royal power over its territory, Occitan declined in status from the 14th century on. By the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) it was decreed that the langue d’oïl (Northern French) should be used for all French administration. Occitan’s greatest decline was during the French Revolution, during which diversity of language was considered a threat.
The literary renaissance of the late 19th century (which included a Nobel Prize for Frédéric Mistral) was attenuated by the World War I, when Occitan speakers spent extended periods of time alongside French-speaking comrades.
Occitan in Spain
Catalan in Spain’s northern and central Mediterranean coastal regions and the Balearic Islands is closely related to Occitan, sharing many linguistic features and a common origin (see Occitano-Romance languages). The language was one of the first to gain prestige as a medium for literature among Romance languages in the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the 12th and 13th centuries, Catalan troubadours such as Guerau de Cabrera, Guilhem de Bergadan, Guilhem de Cabestany, Huguet de Mataplana, Raimon Vidal de Besalú, Cerverí de Girona, Formit de Perpinhan, and Jofre de Foixà wrote in Occitan.
At the end of the 11th century, the Franks, as they were called at the time, started to penetrate the Iberian Peninsula through the Ways of St. James via Somport andRoncesvalles, settling on various spots of the Kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon enticed by the privileges granted them by the Navarrese kings. They established themselves in ethnic boroughs where Occitan was used for everyday life, e.g. Pamplona, Sangüesa, Estella-Lizarra, etc. The language in turn became the status language chosen by the Navarrese kings, nobility and upper classes for official and trade purposes in the period stretching from the early 13th century to late 14th century. These boroughs in Navarre may have been close-knit communities with little mingling, in a context where the natural milieu was predominantly Basque-speaking. The variant chosen for written administrative records was a koiné based on the Languedocien dialect from Toulouse with fairly archaic linguistic features.
Evidence of a written account in Occitan from Pamplona revolving around the burning of borough San Nicolas has reached up to our days (1258), while the History of the War of Navarre by Guilhem Anelier (1276) albeit written in Pamplona shows a linguistic variant from Toulouse.
Things turned out slightly otherwise in Aragon, where the sociolinguistic situation was different, with a clearer Basque-Romance bilingual situation (cf. Basques from the Val d’Aran cited c. 1000), but a receding Basque language (Basque banned in the marketplace of Huesca, 1349). While the language was chosen as a medium of prestige in records and official statements along with Latin in the early 13th century, Occitan faced competition from the rising local Romance vernacular, the Navarro-Aragonese, both orally and in writing, especially after Aragon’s territorial conquests south to Zaragoza, Huesca and Tudela between 1118 and 1134. It resulted that a second Occitan immigration of this period was assimilated by the similar Navarro-Aragonese language, which at the same time was fostered and chosen by the kings of Aragon. The language fell into decay in the 14th century across the whole southern Pyrenean area and became largely absorbed into Navarro-Aragonese first and Castilian later in the 15th century, after their exclusive boroughs broke up (1423, Pamplona’s boroughs unified).
Gascon-speaking communities were called in for trading purposes by Navarrese kings in the early 12th century to the coastal fringe extending from Donostia to the Bidasoa River, where they settled down. The language variant used was different from the ones used in Navarre, i.e. a Béarnese dialect of Gascon, with Gascon being in use far longer than in Navarre and Aragon until the 19th century, thanks mainly to the close ties held by Donostia and Pasaia with Bayonne.
Usage in France
This bilingual street sign in Toulouse, like many such signs found in historical parts of the city, is maintained primarily for its antique charm; it is typical of what little remains of thelenga d’òc in southern French cities.
Though it was still an everyday language for most of the rural population of southern France well into the 20th century, it has been all but replaced by the systematic imposition of the French language. According to the 1999 census, there are 610,000 native speakers (almost all of whom are also native French speakers) and perhaps another million persons with some exposure to the language. Following the pattern of language shift, most of this remainder is to be found among the eldest populations. Occitan activists (calledOccitanists) have attempted, in particular with the advent of Occitan-language preschools (the Calandretas), to reintroduce the language to the young.
Nonetheless, the number of proficient speakers of Occitan is dropping precipitously. A tourist in the cities in southern France is unlikely to hear a single Occitan word spoken on the street (or, for that matter, in a home), and is likely to only find the occasional vestige, such as street signs (and, of those, most will have French equivalents more prominently displayed), to remind them of the traditional language of the area.
Occitans, as a result of more than 200 years of conditioned suppression and humiliation (see Vergonha), seldom speak their own language in the presence of foreigners, whether they are from abroad or from outside Occitania (in this case, often merely and abusively referred to as Parisiens or Nordistes, which means northerners). Occitan is still spoken by many elderly people in rural areas, but they generally switch to French when dealing with outsiders.
Occitan’s decline is somewhat less pronounced in Bearn because of the province’s history (a late addition to the Kingdom of France), though even there the language is little spoken outside the homes of the rural elderly. The village of Artix is notable for having elected to post street signs in the local language.
Usage outside France
Traditionally Occitan-speaking areas
Number of speakers
The area where Occitan was historically dominant is home to some 16 million inhabitants. Recent research has shown it may be spoken as a first language by as many as 789,000 people in France, Italy, Spain and Monaco. In Monaco, Occitan coexists with Monégasque Ligurian, which is the other native language. Some researchers state that up to seven million people in France understand the language, while twelve to fourteen million fully spoke it in 1921. In 1860, Occitan speakers represented more than 39% of the whole French population (52% for francophones proper); they were still 26% to 36% in the 1920s and fewer than 7% in 1993.
Occitan is fundamentally defined by its dialects, rather than being a unitary language. That point is very conflictual in Southern France, as many people do not recognize Occitan as a real language and think that the next defined “dialects” are languages. Like other languages that fundamentally exist at a spoken, rather than written, level (e.g. Rhaeto-Romance, Franco-Provençal, Astur-Leonese, and Aragonese), every settlement technically has its own dialect, with the whole of Occitania forming a classic dialect continuum that changes gradually along any path from one side to the other. Nonetheless, specialists commonly divide Occitan into six main dialects:
Gascon is generally considered the most divergent, and descriptions of the main features of Occitan often consider Gascon separately. Max Wheeler notes that “probably only its copresence within the French cultural sphere has kept [Gascon] from being regarded as a separate language”, and compares it to Franco-Provençal, which is considered a separate language from Occitan but is “probably not more divergent from Occitan overall than Gascon is.”
There is no general agreement about larger groupings of these dialects.
Max Wheeler divides the dialects into two groups:
Pierre Bec divides the dialects into three groups:
Bec also notes that some linguists prefer a “supradialectal” classification that groups Occitan with Catalan as a part of a wider Occitano-Romanic group. One such classification posits three groups:
According to this view, Catalan is an ausbau language that became independent from Occitan during the 13th century, but originates from the Aquitano-Pyrenean group.
Domergue Sumien proposes a slightly different supradialectal grouping.
All these regional varieties of the Occitan language are written and valid. Standard Occitan, also called occitan larg (i.e., ‘wide Occitan’) is a synthesis that respects and admits soft regional adaptations (which are based on the convergence of previous regional koines). So Occitan can be considered as a pluricentric language. The standardisation process began with the publication of Gramatica occitana segon los parlars lengadocians, grammar of the languedocien dialect, by Louis Alibert (1935), followed by the Dictionnaire occitan-français selon les parlers languedociens (French-Occitan dictionary according to Languedocien) by the same author (1966), completed during the 1970s with the works ofPierre Bec (Gascon), Robèrt Lafont (Provençal) and others. But it has not been achieved yet. It is mostly supported by users of the classical norm. Due to the strong situation of diglossia, some users still reject the standardisation process and do not conceive Occitan as a language that could work just as other standardised languages.
There are two main linguistic norms currently used for Occitan, one (known as “classical”), which is based on that of Mediaeval Occitan, and one (sometimes known as “Mistralian”, due to its use by Frédéric Mistral), which is based on modern French orthography. Sometimes, there is conflict between users of each system.
There are also two other norms but they have a lesser audience. The Escòla dau Pò norm (or Escolo dóu Po norm) is a simplified version of the Mistralian norm and is used only in the Occitan Valleys (Italy), besides the classical norm. The Bonnaudian norm (or écriture auvergnate unifiée, EAU) was created by Pierre Bonnaud and is used only in theAuvergnat dialect, besides the classical norm.
Debates concerning linguistic classification and orthography
The majority of scholars believe that Occitan constitutes a single language. Some authors, constituting a minority, reject this opinion and even the name Occitan: they think that there is a family of distinct languages (called langues d’oc / lengas d’oc in plural) rather than dialects.
Many Occitan linguists and writers, particularly those involved with the pan-Occitan movement centred on the Institut d’Estudis Occitans, disagree with the view that Occitan is a family of languages and think that Limousin, Auvergnat, Languedocien, Gascon, Provençal and Alpine Provençal are dialects of a single language. Though there are some noticeable differences between these varieties, there is a very high degree of mutual intelligibility between them; they also share a common literary history, and in academic and literary circles, have been identified as a collective linguistic entity—the langue d’oc—for centuries.
Some Provençal authors continue to support the view that Provençal is a separate language. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Provençal authors and associations think that Provençal is a part of Occitan.
This debate about the status of Provençal should not be confused with the debate concerning the spelling of Provençal.
For example, the classical (pan-Occitan) spelling writes Polonha where the Mistralian spelling system has Poulougno, for [puˈluɲo], ‘Poland’.
The question of Gascon is similar. Gascon presents a number of significant differences from the rest of the language; but, despite these differences, Gascon and other Occitan dialects have very important common lexical and grammatical features, so authors such as Pierre Bec argue that they could never be considered as different as, for example, Spanish and Italian. In addition, the fact that Gascon is included within Occitan despite its particular differences, can be also justified because there is a common elaboration (Ausbau) process between Gascon and the rest of Occitan. The vast majority of the Gascon cultural movement considers itself as a part of the Occitan cultural movement. And the official status of Val d’Aran (Catalonia, Spain), adopted in 1990, says that Aranese is a part of Gascon and Occitan. A grammar of Aranese by Aitor Carrera, published in 2007 in Lleida, presents the same view.
The exclusion of Catalan from the Occitan sphere, although Catalan is closely related, is justified because there has been a consciousness of its being different from Occitan since the later Middle Ages and the elaboration (Ausbau) processes of Catalan and Occitan (including Gascon) have been quite distinct since the 20th century. Nevertheless, other scholars point out that the process that led to the affirmation of Catalan as a distinct language from Occitan was started during the period when the pressure to include Catalan-speaking areas to a mainstream Spanish culture was at its greatest.
Jules Ronjat has sought to characterize Occitan by 19 principal criteria, as generalized as possible. Of those, 11 are phonetic, five morphologic, one syntactic, and two lexical. Close rounded vowels (French: rose, yeux) are rare or absent in Occitan. This characteristic often carries through to an Occitan speaker’s French, leading to a distinctiveméridional accent. Unlike French, it is a pro-drop language, allowing the omission of the subject (canti: I sing; cantas you sing). Among these 19 discriminating criteria, 7 are different from Spanish, 8 from Italian, 12 from Franco-Provençal, and 16 from French.
Features of Occitan
Most features of Occitan are shared with either French or Catalan, or both.
Features of Occitan as a whole
Examples of pan-Occitan features shared with French, but not Catalan:
Examples of pan-Occitan features shared with Catalan, but not French:
Examples of pan-Occitan features not shared with Catalan or French:
Features of some Occitan dialects
Examples of dialect-specific features of the northerly dialects shared with French, but not Catalan:
Examples of dialect-specific features of the southerly dialects (or some of them) shared with Catalan, but not French:
Examples of Gascon-specific features not shared with French or Catalan:
Examples of other dialect-specific features not shared with French or Catalan:
Comparison with other Romance languages and English
A comparison of terms and word counts between languages is not easy, as it is impossible to count the number of words in a language. (See Lexicon, Lexeme, Lexicography for more information.)
Some have claimed around 450,000 words exist in the Occitan language, a number comparable to English (the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged with 1993 addenda reaches 470,000 words, as does the Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition). The Merriam-Webster Web site estimates that the number is somewhere between 250,000 and 1 million words.
The magazine Géo (2004, p. 79) claims that American English literature can be more easily translated into Occitan than French, excluding modern technological terms that both languages have integrated.
A comparison of the lexical content can find more subtle differences between the languages. For example, Occitan has 128 synonyms related to cultivated land, 62 for wetlands, and 75 for sunshine (Géo). The language went through an eclipse during the Industrial Revolution, as the vocabulary of the countryside became less important. At the same time, it was disparaged as a patois. Nevertheless, Occitan has also incorporated new words into its lexicon to describe the modern world. The Occitan word for web is oèb, for example.
One interesting and useful feature of the Occitan language is its virtually infinite ability to create new words through a number of interchangeable and imbeddable suffixes, giving the original terms a whole array of semantic nuances.
Differences between Occitan and Catalan
The separation of Catalan from Occitan is seen by some as largely politically (rather than linguistically) motivated. However, the variety that has become standard Catalan does differ from that which has become standard Occitan in a number of ways. The following are just a few examples:
Occitano-Romance linguistic group
Despite these differences, Occitan and Catalan remain more or less mutually comprehensible, especially when written — more so than either is with Spanish or French, for example. Occitan and Catalan form a common diasystem (or a common Abstandsprache), which is called Occitano-Romance, according to the linguist Pierre Bec. Speakers of both languages share early historical and cultural heritage.
The combined Occitano-Romance area is 259,000 km2 and represents 23 million speakers. However, the regions are not equal in terms of language speakers. According to Bec 1969 (pp. 120–121), in France, no more than a quarter of the population in counted regions speak Occitan well, though around half can understand it; it is thought that the number of Occitan users has decreased dramatically since then. By contrast, in the Spanish Catalonia, nearly three quarters of the population speak Catalan and 95% understand it.
According to the testimony of Bernadette Soubirous, the Virgin Mary spoke to her (Lourdes, 25 March 1858) in Gascon saying: Que sòi era Immaculada Concepcion (“I am the Immaculate Conception”, the phrase is reproduced under this statue in the Lourdes grotto with a Mistralian/Febusian spelling), confirming the proclamation of this Catholic dogma four years earlier.
One of the most notable passages of Occitan in Western literature occurs in the 26th canto of Dante’s Purgatorio in which the troubadour Arnaut Daniel responds to the narrator:
The above strophe translates to:
Another notable Occitan quotation, this time from Arnaut Daniel’s own 10th Canto:
French writer Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables also contains some Occitan. In Part One, First Book, Chapter IV, “Les œuvres semblables aux paroles”, one can read about Monseigneur Bienvenu:
The Spanish playwright Lope de Rueda included a Gascon servant for comical effect in one of his short pieces, La generosa paliza.
John Barnes’s Thousand Cultures science fiction series (A Million Open Doors, 1992; Earth Made of Glass, 1998; The Merchants of Souls, 2001; and The Armies of Memory, 2006), features Occitan. So does the 2005 best-selling novel Labyrinth by English author Kate Mosse. It is set in Carcassonne, where she owns a house and spends half of the year.
The French composer Joseph Canteloube created five sets of folk songs entitled Songs of the Auvergne, in which the lyrics are in the Auvergne dialect of Occitan. The orchestration strives to conjure vivid pastoral scenes of yesteryear.
Michael Crichton features Occitan in his Timeline novel.
Published - August 2014